Energy Faculty Profile: Carol Menassa, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Friday, June 19, 2015
Amy Wynn

About Carol Menassa’s research

Using tools such as energy simulation, systems modeling and informatics, Menassa looks at energy use in buildings. One of her current projects collects data from buildings on both the UM campus as well as a structure at Roosevelt University in Chicago.  The data collected is both quantitative and qualitative: on the quantitative side, building sensors monitor how much energy is being used - and in what ways. The qualitative takes a social approach, looking more at why occupants use energy. What Menassa and her fellow researchers seek to understand is three part: the motivation, ability and potential opportunity to conserve energy.

As a child growing up in Lebanon, Carol Menassa was given a gift that sparked a lifelong interest in structural design.

“When I was five, I received a Lego set. That was it. That’s when I knew I wanted to build things.”

During her childhood, Menassa - University of Michigan Assistant Professor and John L. Tishman CM Faculty Scholar - became passionate about structures: how they are built, and later, how they are designed to withstand use over time. As an undergraduate, she decided to make construction her life’s work and majored in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the American University of Beirut.

Upon graduation, she began her career as Structural Engineer at a large Lebanese - based consulting firm. For eight years, Menassa worked as a designer on construction projects throughout the Middle East. During this time, the firm provided her with the opportunity to return to school for a Masters degree. Back in school, Menassa found a renewed interest in research.

“I took a class on “Retrofit of Existing Buildings”. This course was different because it involved a lot of review and analysis on existing literature on the topic,” Menassa recalls. She excelled at the topic; as a result, the instructor – a visiting professor from Canada – encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D.

Menassa decided to apply to programs throughout the United States.

“Beirut is renowned for its multicultural and vibrant environment.  I attended an American school and university and was exposed to western culture since I was very young.”

The move from the Middle East to the US was, in her words, “ a natural adaptation”.

She was accepted at University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, where she completed her Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Menassa found that her industry experience and exposure to large-scale and complex construction projects allowed her to look at research and teaching from a more practical perspective.

Yet, even as she was working toward her Ph.D. in structures, she was also exploring systems - namely, financial systems.

“In construction, we don’t know what problems the project will face, so I began to look for analogies from financial markets to look at uncertainty in construction.”

Understanding and applying the systemic thinking of financial markets to construction compelled her to pursue an additional MA in Finance.

After completing both degrees, Menassa spent four years on the faculty at University of Wisconsin before accepting her current position at University of Michigan in 2013. Menassa feels lucky to be a part of what she calls “renowned university”.

“Ever since I moved here, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interact with great and supportive colleagues, friendly and helpful staff, and highly motivated and hardworking students.”

Additionally, she feels that the work being done in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department is significant.

“The research we do at Michigan has the potential to influence lives of others across the U.S. and the world. Being in this environment allows me to push the boundaries in terms of the work I do to ensure that it has societal impact.”

“What I like about my work is the social aspect, the human side,” she adds.

“I worked in industry for years and designed buildings. That work was about getting correct design. The work I do now aims to understand how people affect energy usage.”

This, according to Menassa, is a dynamic and growing area of research.

“Buildings in the U.S. use up to 40% of the total energy produced and play an important roles in our lives. They have significant impact on our health, well-being and productivity. I feel that this field is still in its nascent phase and there is still lots of opportunity to improve the technologies available to reduce their impact on the environment and enhance indoor environmental quality for all.”

This, she maintains, will require significant research in advancing technologies as well as engaging engineers, facility managers, occupants and policy makers.

In research as well as teaching, Menassa feels fortunate to have had the support necessary to reach her goals.  Her research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Construction Industry Institute. Her own education is populated with instructors who continue to inspire her.

“I am grateful to have found these great mentors throughout my career. Faculty at AUB, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Madison and now at Michigan continue to influence me and be great role models.”

Menassa hopes to be a teacher of the same order: one with reach, one that encourages risk-taking and new ways of seeing.

“Civil engineering is an exciting field of study and can potentially open a wide array of career opportunities. The advice I always give my students is not to be afraid to try things and be open to learning new things from other disciplines.”

Despite years in an evolving field that uses high-level architecture, Menassa is still quite taken with how everyday structures are put together. She laughingly recalls a time right after arriving in the US when she took an architectural boat tour of Chicago. While others were looking skyward at building facades, learning facts about the era or the architect, Menassa was fixated on the underside of seemingly simple street bridges above the Chicago River. What speaks to her is not the aesthetic but the framework of a structure. It’s a box of Legos put together - and lasting. And Menassa continues to build by advancing design and energy use understanding for today - and for generations.

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